Love for sale: Capitalism, romanticism, and the market of marriage

One of the foremost literary products of capitalism is romanticism. This should be no surprise. Under capitalism, or market society, the economy encroaches on every area of life, as more and more things and activities become commodities for sale. Love is often considered one of those most precious elements that ‘money can’t buy’. Try telling that to the market.

Venus, known to the Greeks as the god of love, and Earth, where love ceases to reign.

The market makes no distinction between values, despite being a system superficially founded on a certain concept of value: value in exchange. Ideally, the value in use of a product aligns with its value in exchange — you get ‘value for money’. But the thing is, over time, money becomes the only value that counts. And indeed, in market logic, this is, in fact, the case: the only additional ‘input’ is demand: but what is the basis on which demand rests? How do we make our choices about what to buy? Increasingly, money is the reason for all things.

Such is the case with love. Once upon a time, marriages were political strategies, designed to foster unions among warring fiefdoms. Initially, and originally, something like marriage originated as a means of keeping male partners loyal to their female partners, in order to ensure the protection of the offspring from this partnership. But now, this partnership — despite its biological origins and political history — has lost even the brilliant fictions of the romantic period. Love is no longer a strategy for survival, a way of building alliances, or a kind of metaphysical transcendence of the parties to a relationship from their social condition, as the romantics imagined. Love, rather, has become a trade.

Think about the legal concept of marriage — it is a contract. But it is not so much a political contract as it is an economic contract. In legal terms, marriage creates a ‘union of assets’. And so the great history of love and romance has come to this: financial sectarianism in a competitive trading order. In a world in which every producer, and every buyer, must fend for themselves, marriage is a means of both protection against the ravages of the market economy and a potential enhancer of a couple’s financial power; like a joint-stock enterprise, or a monopoly.

But it’s not just marriage. Dating is done through applications designed to keep people addicted to the blind merry go-round of frivolous ‘drinks’, ‘coffee’, ‘movies’, and suchlike. And the norms of dating reflect this, insisting that each party must not be ‘dependent’ on the other, but must pursue their own individual ‘wellbeing’ and ‘independence’ (these terms being easily equated with each other, for some reason) before even considering the road towards tying the knot. In a society of independent producers, dependence — even in the clear co-dependence (another bad word, apparently) of romantic relationships — is a crime against the sovereignty of the commodity.

The market of marriage and all that comes before it reflects a damning truth of capitalism: everything, including love, is for sale. The universal commoditisation of affection is, thus, a universal prostitution. Bodies are bought and sold every day, in the workplace, in the streets, in every nook and cranny of the physical and digital existence we so desperately cling to. And when we do think about things beyond money, or power, or status, or ‘love’, we consider the unfair conditions of slaves, or serfs, and how much better off we are today. But if we have turned the most sacred of human connections into a mere transaction, how can we be sure our lives are any better?

For it is not really marriage that is the worst thing capitalism has created, or destroyed. It is meaning itself. And if this blog post means nothing to you because it does not give you hope for feasting on the forbidden fruits of meaningless money-making in your own life, then, dear reader, this proves my point.

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